Saints coach should be freed, too

Free Sean Payton.

Or at least be real about why he’s really being punished.

The New Orleans Saints coach was suspended for all of this season because, we were told, he failed to stop a “bounty program,” a program that allegedly paid players for injuring opponents, a program that tore at the basic contract of the game.

All of this had been swallowed as gospel until an independent arbitration panel on Friday determined that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had overstepped his bounds in his sweeping punishment of players allegedly involved in this nefariousness.

What the panel told Goodell was:

• Your dictatorship authority with sweeping punitive power only applies if this is a conduct detrimental issue, not a salary-cap issue.

• Feel free to discipline them on conduct detrimental, just know you have to have evidence of intent to injure beyond dollars on a board.

• Get back to us, if you have all of this. And proof.

• Can I redo my fantasy draft now that I know Jonathan Vilma might be playing? That kid is a fighter.

Yes, Friday brought us a change on The Big Board.

Vilma 1, Goodell 0.

Or as Vilma tweeted: “Victory is mine!!!! -stewie griffin”

This is what happens when Bountygate evidence and penalties had an audience that Goodell did not have fear-of-God say over. Suspensions overturned, Vilma, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and Saints defensive end Will Smith all eligible to play Sunday, and a fresh set of questions about what exactly Payton is being suspended for.

This whole thing feels like something bad happened, somebody has to pay and it cannot be the league.

Because while this is hardly the end of Bountygate or legal wranglings, this certainly is a reminder that Goodell and the league have entered a battle this time. Nobody is backing down.

This now goes back to Goodell, and, of course, he’s doubling down.

Albert Breer, of NFL Network fame, had Goodell’s internal memo on Twitter. I’ll summarize: I am still going to get those you-know-whaters. Just be patient.

“Nothing in today’s decision contradicts any of the facts found in the investigation into this matter or absolves any player of responsibility for conduct detrimental,” were the actual words on the memo.

Facts is a funny word choice. Facts are pesky little things requiring something beyond what he said and what we think and extrapolating what little we know into big broad themes, which is exactly what has been allowed to happen here.

What we know is something not really cool was going on. What we do not know is if these were real-deal bounties, if anybody else has anything like this brewing and how exactly Payton is accountable for it.

What the league always had argued was Payton, while not a direct participant in alleged injury-seeking behavior, was aware and “failed to stop the bounty program.” This sounds awful, right? I mean, here we have an NFL coach accused of turning a blind eye as his defensive coordinator and best defensive player conspired to injure the opposition for money.

The problem was, the facts were always fuzzy, the evidence never fully revealed. And it all felt a little too convenient. In an offseason where all anybody seemed to be talking about was player health and brain injuries, Bountygate gave Goodell a bully pulpit from which to preach the gospel of personal responsibility.

How often did we hear Goodell talk about how “everybody has a role in protecting players’ health” when castigating Payton.

It was subtle and genius. The game is not killing these players, Goodell seemed to be saying, rogue miscreants like Payton and Vilma and coordinator Gregg Williams are.

Goodell counted on Vilma to shut his mouth and take his penalty and pray for reinstatement. He counted wrong. In Vilma, we finally have seen a player unwilling to play what has become a monotonous game of “Thank God, Roger cares enough about me to punish me.”

Because he knows that is a lie.

It is the lie of the NFL that somehow the game is not dangerous but the players are. The game is dangerous, crazy stupid dangerous. The speeches given before games, the targets on players, the edict to finish hits, the JumboTrons and TV replays that play the big ones over and over are all the same. I have written this before, but when things went south in New Orleans, the league cut them loose.

What happened Friday was somebody finally told Goodell that he actually has to prove intent to injure if he wants to accuse and suspend players for that behavior.

And if there was no intent, how could Payton have stopped it? And if he could not have stopped it, why is he suspended? We know why, and unlike Vilma and his crew, Payton has no union to lobby his case to an independent panel free from doing what Roger says.

So I will do it for him: Free Sean Payton.